LAHAINA >> The Lahaina Civic Center sits on a hill above Honoapiilani Highway in western Maui, barely visible among the tropical trees and police station.
The outside of the building is nondescript even up close, looking more like a school auditorium than a basketball arena. Same thing on the inside, with its upstairs, YMCA-style lockers and cage-like windows overlooking the court.
Yet every November, the Lahaina Civic Center transforms into something else: one of college basketball’s most raucous venues.
“It’s like a high school gym being there,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said Sunday, the eve of the Maui Invitational. “The noise is loud, people are close to you. I think it’s neat. This time of year you want to play in front of an excited crowd, an arena where everything is close. There’s just so much you can gain from an experience like this and in a building like that. There’s really nothing like it.”
The Maui Invitational has become the top in-season tournament on the college basketball schedule, annually luring some of the best teams from across the country to the second-largest island in the Hawaiian chain.
This year’s eight-team field has combined for 14 national championships and 40 Final Fours, and three teams are ranked in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll : No. 4 Oregon, No. 5 North Carolina and No. 9 Wisconsin.
The three-day tournament, which starts Monday, also includes Tennessee, Oklahoma State, UConn, Georgetown and host Chaminade.
At the center of this basketball-topia is the 2,400-seat Lahaina Civic Center.
Built in 1972, the building is used as a public civic center 50 weeks out of the year, hosting high school basketball leagues, volleyball games, karate practices and community events.
The two weeks of the Maui Invitational brings some changes to the civic center — signs and banners, TV lights, cushioned chairs in front of the bleachers — but it’s still nowhere near matching the massive, modern arenas found across the rest of college basketball. It didn’t even have air conditioning until the 2005 tournament — after North Carolina coach Roy Williams complained about condensation on the floor.
“It’s hard to adapt an old building with such character into a 2016 basketball arena that everyone’s used to,” said Mark Starsiak, director of events for KemperLesnik, which operates the Maui Invitational.
“I tell teams every year: ‘It’s the most unique experience you’ll have walking from the locker room all season. If you have any questions, I’ll try to answer them.’”
Calling the Lahaina Civic Center quirky is like saying basketball players are tall.
The court, outside of the massive Maui Invitational logo at midcourt, is like a high school hardwood, with volleyball court and vertical basketball lines crisscrossing the court.
The seats are like something out of “Hoosiers,” old bleachers that are practically on top of the court and only go up a dozen-or-so rows.
The locker rooms are unlike anything in college basketball.
Those are on the second floor, up a narrow stairwell that leads to a common area with taekwondo and wrestling lines on the floor, with nothing but a black curtain separating the teams. The common room also has cage-like windows that overlook the floor, though the view has been obscured a bit with the massive Hawaiian-themed banner at the west side of the arena.
The lockers are the old, metal bring-your-own variety, with four concrete chairs, a single whiteboard and showers that don’t always work.
Because of the small confines, teams waiting for the next game have to set up in the common area and often can be seen at the bottom of the stairwells as the previous game is about to end.
“Leave your strategy for the hotel because your opponent is right through there,” Starsiak said, pointing at the black curtain. “Anything you say can and will be used against you on the court.”
With all the pampering teams and players usually get, it might seem like the civic center’s inconveniences would be a drawback.
Instead, the quirkiness and quaintness adds to the charm of the building and the tournament, often making the players feel like they’re back in high school.
And because of the venue’s size, the noise and atmosphere inside the Lahaina Civic Center is like nothing else in college basketball.
“The environment’s great,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “The fans are right on top of you, you feel the emotion of the fans the whole time. Much like this entire tournament, the game is a unique experience.”